The road up the Baviaansriver seems to become progressively narrower, and the surface becomes worse the further you travel along it. In Thomas Pringle’s day it took five days to travel through the valley by ox-waggon, but I intended to finish the journey before sunset. That is, if my car would survive the beating.
|One of the many crossings along the Baviaans River.|
I crossed the first bridge and decided to count them. There would ultimately be 27 crossings before I reached the valley’s landmark – the place where Freek Bezuidenhout lost his life. To Thomas Pringle in 1820, accustomed to the greenery of Scotland, this rough world must have seemed like a different planet. Full of things that scratched and stung and bit, he might easily have become disheartened. Instead, he saw his surroundings with a romantic eye. I could see his quill scratch upon linen paper as he wrote down what he beheld:
“Frequently the mountains, again converging, left only a narrow defile, just broad enough for the stream to find a passage; while precipices of naked rock rose abruptly, like the walls of a rampart, to the height of many hundred feet, and in some places appeared absolutely to overhang the savage-looking pass or poort, through which we and our wagons struggled below; our only path being occasionally the rocky bed of the shallow river itself, encumbered with huge blocks of stone which had fallen from the cliffs, or worn smooth as a marble pavement by the sweep of the torrent floods.”
I was fascinated by his description when I first read it, and to this day, I try to see the valley through his eyes. His description was undoubtedly a little more colourful than reality, yet just when you are convinced that he was exaggerating you chance upon some scenery which makes your realize that his descriptions did indeed hold true.
“The steep hills on either side often assume very remarkable shapes,” he wrote, “– embattled, as it were, with natural ramparts of freestone or trap rock – and seemingly garrisoned with troops of the large baboons from which the river had received its former Dutch appellation. The lower declivities were covered with good pasturage, and sprinkled over with evergreens and acacias; while the cliffs that overhung the river had their wrinkled fronts embellished with various species of succulent plants and flowering aloes. In other spots the freestone and basaltic rocks, partially worn away with the waste of years, had assumed shapes the most singular and grotesque; so that with a little aid from fancy, one might imagine them the ruins of Hindoo or Egyptian temples, with their half decayed obelisks, columns, and statutes of monster deities.”
I was travelling along a road along which my direct ancestors must have followed frequently. I often wondered why they had chosen to live in this narrow, twisting canyon, while the surrounding plans of the Camdeboo and the Tarka seemed to be a much better choice with their sweeping plains and exotic vistas. One begins to understand when one looks through the big picture of historical perspective, though.
|The old 1828 church of Glen Lynden.|
In a time when they were constantly the prey of marauding beasts and murdering tribes, a valleys such as this one would have been ideal. Firstly, the valley was extremely isolated. For a band of thieving Xhosas it would have been a very long and torturous trek to cross the many valleys and ridges to where the settlers lived. And even if they did succeed, the surrounding mountains were so steep that it would have made swift escape with raided livestock all but an impossibility. Furthermore the water in the valley was sweet and pleasant, and along its fertile banks the grass, according to Thomas Pringle, grew lush and high up to the oxen’s bellies.
As I passed occasional farms, I marveled that families would still choose to live in such wild and isolated regions in this day and age. And yet, I recall what Gideon de Klerk had once told me – that the families in their region were often reasonably well-off. The land might be harsh and unforgiving, but if one treated it with respect and kindness, if would often reward the caretaker generously. Indeed, some of the homes seemed grand and imposing, and fell very kindly on the eye of a despairing stranger.
|Rear view of the original Glen Lynden church.|
After several miles, a series of ruined homes and cottages suddenly sprung from the tall grass and sweet thorn acacias beside the river. This was the tiny settlement of Glen Lynden. This diminutive hamlet is so insignificant that it almost stands unmarked on maps. Yet in its day it used to be quite a well-known landmark. Here, in 1828, Thomas Pringle had succeeded in convincing the government to build a small stone church for his followers and their Dutch-speaking neighbours.
It was a time in which populations were still small and the land still seemed limitlessly big. Even though there were tensions between colonists and the British government at the time, in places such as Glen Lynden, the settlers became united by the many threats they had in common. A corrupt administration, never-ending border warfare, and also the harsh elements and severity of nature forged a community of friends, which resulted in the two sides sharing a church, sharing ministers – and eventually sharing a better destiny.
|The new 1873 Glen Lynden Dutch Reformed church at Glen Lyndon - now hardly used anymore.|
Next to the old Glen Lynden church stands a newer Dutch Reformed church, which was built 1873. Around the churches stood the ruins and remnants of several abandoned homes. It had namely long been the custom for country folk to have a “townhouse” by the church, in which the families would reside during their monthly visits for socialization and to take communion. I was most interested in the old original church, however, for in this tiny structure many of the ancestors of leading South African families were baptized.
There was one more site I wanted to see once more. Along the riverbank, about a hundred metres from the newer church there lies the tiniest of cemeteries. It is here, that I always like to pause and ponder. It marks a postage-stamped little plot of tragedy, which never fails to blow upon one’s imagination, like a soft breeze on a candle’s flame. There were only three graves in the cemetery. A father, a mother, and their little son. Even though I do not know the family’s story, the inscriptions on the tombstones told it all.
|The postage stamp-sized Webber family cemetery at Glen Lynden.|
It began with a little boy of ten years old who had drowned in the Baviaans river, just a few paces from this tiny graveyard. The inscription says “William Nash son of B.M. & M.A. Webber who was drowned while bathing at Glen Lynden Tuesday 20th January 1880 aged 10 years and 9 months. He loved Jesus.” It sort of punches you in the stomach every time you read that inscription. Losing a child of any age must be one of the most traumatic experiences known to man. Losing a son in such a lonely place seemed to me to be even worse.
I sat by the grave for a while, listening to the murmuring river and the gentle rustling of the leaves. I was thinking about that little boy’s love for Jesus, and wondered how many ten year olds that could be said today? Indeed, I wonder of how many of any age that would be true? Of all the things that could be written on the tombstone of a child, this inscription to me, seemed to be one of the most valuable tributes of all.
|The history of a family, told on tombstones.|
After the little boy’s death, the family’s lonely life at Glen Lynden continued, even though I’m sure thing never felt the same again. The father, Benjamin Mitchell Webber died at the age of 47 in the year of 1893, leaving his poor wife, Millicent Ann, a widow. Nine years later, she too died in 1902, at the age of 57. She died during the Anglo-Boer War. A sad and lonely time to be buried in a sad and lonely spot. It might have been a postcard drama, set between four crumbling walls and framed by a gigantic wilderness, but to me the scene of tragedy was made beautiful by the realization that no matter how tragic it appeared to us, what we see are not the symbols of the end, but the hope of a beginning.
If a man has no belief and hope in a resurrection, I can't imagine life to be worth living. That's undoubtedly what this couple lived for until they too, joined their little son in the quiet square where the river peacefully gurgles as if more than a century and a quarter had never happened.
|William Nash Webber - the boy who loved Jesus.|
I made my way back to my car, ready to hit the road again, when suddenly I heard an engine’s noise. Pleasantly surprised at encountering a sign of life in this abandoned place, I stood and waved at the approaching vehicle. Slowing to a halt in a cloud of dust I realized that the driver wanted to talk to me. Either that, or he was wondering whether to shoot me for daring to enter in a world where only the centuries are allowed to past unmolested.
If I was expecting to be met by Crocodile Dundee and wrestled to the ground with a bear hug, I was mistaken. Little did I know it, but I was about to meet “The Oracle.” Everywhere I went afterwards, when people heard that I was searching after history, they always asked me whether I had met “The Oracle” yet? Unlike the name would suggest, Alex Pringle did not look like the quintessential oracle at all. A beaming man with the country-gentleman-like character that is so characteristic of 1820 settler descendants to this day, he greeted me most warmly. The more so when he heard about my interests.
Alex quickly suggested that I tried the church’s back door, which he believed would be unlocked, and to try one of the Dutch Reformed church’s doors as well. He explained that he was on his way to town, but urged me to visit his home further up the road where he assured me I would not be sorry to see the settler’s church and other relics from the Pringle past. “My wife would gladly offer you some tea,” he said. I wasn’t at all the type to simply drop by uninvited. Especially not in a country where it was easy to imagine getting a backside full of buckshot for simply looking out of place. Yet the offer was so warmly made that I could hardly fail to promise that I would take it up.
When Alex left I found both church doors securely locked to my disappointment as they had been on all my previous visits. I would have liked to see the interior, especially of the old church. Every year on the 16th of December – The Day of the Vow – so Gideon de Klerk once told me, the community sends for the church’s old harmonium at the museum in Bedford. They then have a commemoration service in the little church, just as they had done since he was a boy – and for generations before that.
Being thus disappointed, I returned to my trusty chariot and resumed my journey. Twisting and turning, my thoughts were at Glen Lynden for a long time. I thought about the Oracle, and the graceful hospitality of country folk. And it reminded me of something that my mother once told me.
We were sitting on her patio one day, overlooking the Olifants River between Hoedspruit and Phalaborwa when, completely out of the blue she suddenly observed to me, “ we must never lose this.”
|The Baviaans River.|
Puzzled by this disconnected remarked that seemed to have been pulled from thin blue air I squinted and said, “lose what, Mom?”
“Old-fashioned country hospitality,” she answered…
I will always remember that as among the nicest things she ever said. We had been brought up in the tradition of our forefathers, who had learned it from theirs. Age-old customs that had been developed during the times when survival of mankind depended very much on the willingness of strangers to help one-another. When I reflect upon these things I am always reminded that we have lost something desperately precious during our tradition to a modern age.
Life was cheap on the eastern frontier around the end of the 16th century. And yet, at the same time it seems to me that it was somehow more precious than it is now. Perhaps because life often lasted such a short time, and ended so violently, it was possibly more valued.
|Cows in the Baviaans - the prospect of looting livestock was a never-ending temptation to the tribes who lived towards the east.|
In such an enormous country, with so many people living there, each human life meant a better chance for survival of a community. Another son or daughter to share the task of gathering food and the means to life. Another hand to defend families against animals and onslaught of human enemies. Another heart to love. Another chance of survival of a people by virtue of the simple act of procreation.
How tragically times have changed between then and now. Now, a human life is expunged because its inception had been inconvenient. Killed by the taking of a tablet, or torn asunder and sucked from the womb through a tube. Old people are banished to nursing homes where they can be filed and then forgotten. Families abandoned to the welfare state who would feed them where they will not be a nuisance in our immediate lives. And even if we do not dismiss their lives in such a dramatic way, we destroy them gradually through neglect and disrespect.
We share lives with each other in a desperately crowded world, quietly ignoring one-another even while we rub each other’s shoulders raw. Today the world is more crowded than it has ever been in all of history – and yet, this may just be the loneliest generation of them all.
Driving from drift to drift through the ancient canyon, I thought about all these things, and smiled. This was such a quiet world, yet for all its isolation I realized that it did not feel lonely at all. Quiet, perhaps, but not lonely in the traditional sense.
This was, after all, a valley where my ancestors experienced adventure that would have filled many volumes – if only they had been recorded.